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The Beneficial Fire

by Larry Newman

Note: When people are hit with an extreme, life-disrupting loss they will never be the same again. They will feel either wounded and bitter, or strengthened and better. Larry Newman’s way of appreciating the benefits he gained from losing everything he owned in a fire shows how a resilient person can convert misfortune into good fortune. Here is how Larry describes a good/bad event in his life:

At 7:26 AM on October 1st, 1987, the Whittier earthquake hit the Los Angeles area. That moment is etched in my mind forever because the quake caused a short circuit in my apartment’s wiring. The resulting sparks quickly ignited a fire that completely destroyed my apartment — and changed my life.

I was sitting in my living room, reading the paper, when I became aware of my neighbor’s shouts of "FIRE." When I ran to the bedroom, I was terrified. The whole room was ablaze. I knew that the only thing to do was to get out, and fast.

Since I had no clothes on, I grabbed my bathrobe and ran to the front door. Suddenly, I realized that I didn’t see my cat, Max. I ran back into the hallway, but by that time it was fully engulfed with flames. I had no choice but to turn and run out of the building.

When I reached the street, I could hear sirens getting closer. I went over and stood with a group of neighbors who were gathering to watch. When several of them saw that I was wearing only my bathrobe, they brought me some clothes and shoes.

So there I stood, watching fire pouring out of my bedroom, burning up everything I owned. As I watched, the impact of what was happening hit me and my mind started to reel. Not only was my past melting before my eyes, but my future was less certain than ever.

You see, over the previous year, I was struggling along as a non-union movie extra, aspiring to an acting career. But my income was so low I was unable to accumulate enough money to join the Screen Actor’s Guild. Becoming a member would open doors for me, triple my income, and greatly further my career. Now my wardrobe, which is crucial for getting acting jobs, was turning to ashes.

After filling out paperwork with information that the fire department needed, I called my dear friends Alissa and Jonah and yelled "Help!" They welcomed me with open arms, a bed, food, and love.

Fortunately, my car was not damaged by the fire and I had a duplicate set of keys secreted in a hide-a-key box attached under my bumper. After I arrived at their place and settled in, I started thinking about what was going to happen to me. My mind began racing with all the negative "whys," "whats," and "hows" of my situation. But ten minutes later, a great calm descended upon me–almost as if a giant hand was reining in a runaway horse. I realized that I was in one piece, and all I had to do to stay on an even keel was to deal with one thing at a time, one moment at a time, one day at a time.

The next morning my apartment manager called and told me that my cat Max was found hiding in the bushes. I rushed back to get him. Max looked dirty, frightened, and stressed out, but after holding him in my arms awhile, he calmed down. Later, I took him to the vet to get dry cleaned and pressed, (I never give cats a bath!!!)

Two days after the fire, I went to a local Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) office and filled out their forms. Two days later a rep met me at my apartment to survey the damage. Within 10 days of the fire I received a check for $5000!

I stayed with Alissa and Jonah for six months while I regrouped. The money let me purchase a new wardrobe that was even better than what I had before, and with the extra money I was able to join the Screen Actor’s Guild!

The fire was a blessing in professional and personal ways. The fire strengthened my belief that "things" can be replaced, and that the important aspect of any event is how you react to it. My experience put me in empathetic touch with those who have suffered a similar experience. I am now regularly employed as an actor and stand-in on a hit sitcom and wake each morning relishing the thought of going to work!!! And yes, all personal experiences come into play as an actor, so the fire gave me a multitude of emotions to draw on.

I have absolutely no sad memories of whatever was lost in the fire. (Must tell you a side story — I was bequeathed my grandmother’s engagement and wedding rings which I kept in a small cardboard box in my sock drawer of my dresser. The fire started in my bedroom, so it was completely destroyed. When I was permitted to return to my apartment, I went to the bedroom dresser and gingerly opened my sock drawer. All the socks were burned to a crisp, BUT, the cardboard box was unsinged and untouched!!!)

Regretfully, after having a wonderful relationship with Max for 15 years, he passed away 2 months ago from cancer. He was a great guy and I miss him greatly.

Upon reflection, it appears to me that no matter what the disaster is, the best way to deal with it is one day at a time. Life is full of positive surprises, and they usually come in the most unexpected ways.

For anyone facing a similar situation I would say to think of life as being in a small boat with your hand on the tiller. A major storm erupts and tosses you about, but if you keep a steady hand on the tiller it is only a matter of time before the storm subsides and the sun breaks through.